Lessons from Yoga: Self-Awareness

Whenever I meet people who are in to yoga I usually always hear the same thing: “I started yoga to be more flexible / get fitter / stronger / lose weight, but I can’t believe it’s changed my life in so many other ways!”

It’s a common story that you come to yoga for the physical benefits, and stay for the mental ones but what does this actually mean, and what can you expect if you’re a complete newcomer to the practice?

In this post I’ll be looking at one of my favourite ‘by-products’ of yoga; self-awareness, and how what we learn in our yoga class can help us off the mat!

How Yoga Can Teach Self Awarenes

Self-Awareness on the Mat

In the very simplest sense, being self-aware on the mat means recognising how you feel at any one moment; how your body and mind are reacting to the practice.

In any given posture your yoga teacher might give you the opportunity to ‘notice how you feel’. This is your chance to actively tune in to how your body and your mind are reacting to this pose. Do you feel comfortable? Do you feel vulnerable? Do you feel discomfort? Are you OK with that discomfort or is it making you panic / fidget / berate yourself? Are you pushing yourself? Can you breathe properly? Are you struggling to focus, or do you feel actually very calm? Whatever comes up, the key to self-awareness is that you recognise your physical, and mental / emotional, feelings.

When it comes to our yoga practice, being aware of our physical self is important because it helps us to recognise our limitations. In a public yoga class there may be up to 30 different people, of differing body types, shapes, abilities, strengths and weaknesses. The teacher has to create a class which will challenge each of those individuals and leave them feeling good after class. But what might challenge one person might be easy for another, and here it’s your job as the student to be self-aware.

Trying to keep up with the person on the mat next to you is only going to leave you feeling stressed, self-doubting and worst-of-all injured. In today’s world of social media and ‘beach-body-ready’ messages it can be easy to get caught up with looking a certain way or being able to do a certain posture, but what yoga really teaches us is that it’s OK to have limitations. In fact, by recognising and honouring our limitations, we are actually creating a healthy relationship with our body.

We’re building an intimate relationship with ourselves where we are totally in tune with what we can’t and more importantly, what we can do, and by accepting those facts we’re creating a confident, happy version of ourselves and removing the desire to strive to be something we’re not.

We can also start to notice those times when we tell ourselves ‘I can’t’. In every yoga pose there is a point where the mind says stop. It says stop because it’s trying to protect you; probably because you’re in a position the brain isn’t used to being in. However, the brain usually says stop before the body needs it, to ensure that protection.

Practising self-awareness on the mat will allow you to walk the line between when the brain says no, and when the body says no. Now I’m by no means advocating that you push yourself beyond your limits. But through gentle practice, and soft, focussed breathing, you may find that you CAN do things that your brain told you you COULDN’T, and that is one of the most amazing feelings in the world.

You’ll also start to notice that some days you can do a posture and some you can’t. By listening to how your body and mind are reacting on any given day will help you to be kind to yourself and give your body what it needs. Some days that will be a hot, sweaty vinyasa class, other days that will be yin, or maybe nothing at all. During your practice you’ll recognise when you need to rest and take child’s pose, and when you can go for one more chaturunga push-up, without your mind getting in the way and telling you that you need to do the push-up because your arms need to get more toned! Sometimes what the mind tells you to do, isn’t what’s actually best for you.

Self-Awareness off the Mat

The more you tune in to your thoughts and feelings during your yoga practice, the more you train yourself to tune in when you’re not practising. It’s a lot harder with the distractions of the world around you, and without your yoga teacher reminding you to check in with yourself, but it can be done. Whenever you feel stressed, pressured, angry, upset, frustrated or any other feeling or emotion which is causing distress, try to take a breath and check-in. What am I feeling? Why am I feeling it? Is it something I can change?

The more you do this, the more you’ll start to recognise patterns in your thoughts or emotions and how they relate to things happening in the world around you. For example, after checking in with myself at different points throughout each day during a particularly stressful week I noticed a pattern in my anxiety levels and the things I was telling myself and I managed to pull together a cycle of anxiety which I create for myself. It goes a little something like this:

Anxiety Cycle Yoga Self Awareness

Once I realised this cycle I was putting myself through it all became apparent; I am my own worst task-master! I wrote the cycle down and pinned it up at my desk, to remind myself not to put so much pressure on myself, and not to be so hard on myself, because I’m just causing my own anxiety! By continuing to practice self-awareness, I can check-in with myself and make sure I’m not getting caught up in the cycle.

It doesn’t stop there though, self-awareness off the mat can also be applied to how we interact with others. We can start to recognise what types of people set us off or give us energy. We can find out what messages we’re putting out into the world; are they positive, or are we that person who finds a ‘problem’ in every sentence?

We can work out our abilities in the workplace, which situations motivate us, and which ones set us back. We become aware of what type of friend, sibling, partner, or parent we are; when do we start to get angry with those around us? When do we feel loved? Do we give back as much as we get, or are we giving too much to those who do not reciprocate?

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference
— Reinhold Niebuhr

The point of this heightened self-awareness is not about judgement. It’s about observation, and acceptance. If you recognise patterns in yourself which you want to, and can, change, then go ahead and change them. If you can’t change them though, then there’s no point starting to berate yourself or put yourself down about it. Accepting who you are is the ultimate outcome of self-awareness, and the beautiful by-product of yoga. Knowing and accepting who you are will improve self-esteem, reduce self-doubt, help you to make the right life choices and surround yourself with the right people. It will give you the courage to say no to things which you know will not serve you, and yes to those which you know will.

It’s not an overnight change. Yoga is called a practice because that’s exactly what it is. One day you’ll feel fully tuned in, another you’ll be distracted. That’s OK. You just keep turning up, rolling out your mat and practising, and the rest will follow.

Take the time to check-in with yourself after reading this post. How do you feel? Where is your mind at? What can you do about it?

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